In the late 1930s, prior to emigrating to the United States, Lithuanian geographer Kazys Pakstas proposed a radical solution to what he saw as the inevitable eradication of the nation through its assimilation into the German and Russian spheres of influence: The purchase and annexation of a large tract of land on the African or American continent, and the creation there of a “backup Lithuania.” Eighty years later, filmmaker Karolis Kaupinis has taken this eccentric idea as the kernel of truth from which his beautifully poker-faced feature debut can sprout into an elegant, offbeat fiction that is both steeped in pre-war Lithuanian history and starkly relevant to our current moment — wherever nationalism is being invoked for political capital by powerful cowards. Which is to say: almost everywhere.
In appropriate 4:3 ratio (boxed in on either side like the beleaguered nation it examines), and in crisp black-and-white, ‘Nova Lituania’ opens with little context or hand-holding. It’s refreshing to come across a debut filmmaker with the confidence not to over-explain his scenario, but it does require a close attention, especially from the non-Lithuanian viewer. It is 1938, and fictional President Palionis (Valentinas Masalskis) is attending a military academy graduation ceremony, doling out sabres and patriotic words to the eager young cadets. Also in attendance are the Prime Minister, Jonas (Vaidotas Martinaitis) a worried-looking man suffering from heart problems, and uniformed military adviser Svegzda (Julius Zalakevicius), muttering bad news into Jonas’ ear. It seems there has been an incident on the contested border with Poland that has resulted in the death of a Polish soldier. “We’ll say they shot first,” blusters the President in chambers later, but no one believes that will halt the tinder-box buildup of tension.
Meanwhile, in a lecture theater on the other side of Kaunas (the Lithuanian capital while the Polish occupation of the Vilnius region is ongoing), nervy geography professor Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavičius) is expounding his theories on population density, the eventual collapse of the nation and the extinction of Lithuanian culture. His proposed solution — the relocation of a sizeable portion of the population to a backup state in Brazil, Angola, Quebec or Alaska — has already been dismissed as madness by most authorities, but finds a reluctant, covert champion in the ailing Jonas. Together, the prime minister and the geographer form an absurdist, almost Beckettian two-man alliance, meeting in secret to further the fantastical plan, which gives this stone-faced film its touches of whimsy, like a road trip to the sea which leads to an impromptu driving lesson on the beach.
But this is not simply a fondly fictionalized work of imaginative historiography. It is also an inventive exploration of last-ditch idealism vs. fatalistic pragmatism, given more allegorical power by containing within itself its own allegory. Gruodis’ fraught domestic situation — which includes an invasive mother-in-law (Eglė Gabrėnaitė), passive-aggressive wife (Rasa Samuolytė) and a back room “occupied” by comely young relative Julyete (Roberta Sirgedaite) — indirectly parallels Lithuania’s worsening geopolitical conundrum, and Gruodis’ obliviousness to it adds another layer of mordant wit. The adage “Physician, heal thyself!” here becomes “Geographer! Get your own house in order.”
“Nova Lituania” is also formally striking. Simonas Glinskis’ photography feels both antique in its monochrome palette and modern in the poreless, ungrained luminosity of its digital imagery. It is classical, with precisely choreographed scenes playing out in frames composed as stringently as a territorial map. But it is also contemporary, in the occasional subtle wobble of the handheld camerawork. All aspects of its craft, including Audrias Dumikas’ meticulous, period-accurate yet also coolly minimalist production design, feel engineered to remind us that its themes straddle the amusingly bygone and the painfully present.
Of course, the idea of social engineering on this massive scale does seem categorically lunatic now. But Kaupinis’ intelligent writing and the engaging underplaying from the cast remind us of the relative normalcy of such grand thinking in an era when choleric men in flag-draped rooms redrew international borders and plotted to expunge entire populations more or less on a whim. And so, as pie-eyed and impracticable as Gruodnis’ plan might be, the film’s most scathing assessment does not fall on the twitchily obsessive geographer or his burnt-out, straw-grasping co-conspirator.
Instead, it is reserved for the men who operate without ideal or principle, here exemplified by the president, who hides the fact that the “glorious” reclamation of the historical capital of Vilnius comes at the cost of total capitulation to the Soviets, because he doesn’t want to “ruin the mood.” It’s a darkly comical moment, but then you remember that Lithuania did in reality subsequently experience 45 years of Soviet rule, and that unpalatable truths get spun by craven world leaders against the interests of their citizenry, every day. Like all good satires, “Nova Lituania” is very funny, until it isn’t.